Elis Lee

NNEST of the Month

March 2012

elis100 [at] hotmail [dot] com

Elis Lee has been teaching at Glendale Community College since 1998. She received a B.A. in English from UCLA and an M.A. in TESOL from Cal State University, Los Angeles. She has written articles for TESOL MattersCATESOL Journal, and the NNEST Newsletter. Elis has presented at TESOL, CATESOL, and Regional CATESOL conferences. In addition, she was the coordinator of the NNLEI Interest Group from 1999 to 2001.

NNEST March Interviewer: Davi S. Reis

Many thanks to my colleague and graduate assistant, Rae Balog, for her invaluable help with various aspects of this interview.

1. Could you tell us about your educational and professional background and why you decided to become an educator?

I guess it’s true when people say that “nothing happens by accident.” I was in law school at the Universidade de Sao Paulo (USP), which is considered the best higher education institution in Brazil, when I came to the United States one summer to visit my boyfriend. I had never considered leaving law school because I was the first one in my family to ever have passed the difficult admission exam into the elite university. Giving up was not an option. However, the summer I spent in the U.S. left an impression strong enough for me to consider leaving everything in Brazil. I was tired of the violence and very disappointed to learn about the corruption in politics. Up until my admission to law school, I was a poor, naïve, idealistic Brazilian who wanted to become a judge or enter politics to help people, but learning about how the law worked, or didn’t work, crushed my dreams. Without any hope that I could really leave my country and my family and being afraid to crush my mother’s dreams to have a daughter graduate from USP, I decided to discuss the matter with my mother. To my surprise, she agreed to let me come and begin a new life with new possibilities.

When I came to the United States, I did not know much English. I had never attended a language school in Brazil, and my knowledge of the language was limited to what I had learned in my weekly one-hour classes beginning in middle school. But I was determined to continue my education in the U.S., so I went to a local community college and was placed in ESL classes. In the middle of my first class, my teacher said that I “learned very fast.” He suggested that I take English 101 right after that class. I always felt insecure about my language skills, so I took an English class below to get me prepared to compete with native speakers. In addition to the obvious vocabulary disadvantage, a lot of the material studied also required cultural knowledge, but I persevered and even took honor English classes.

When I transferred to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), I still felt my English was not strong enough even though I had graduated with honors. I wanted to be able to speak, read, and write like a native speaker, so I majored in English literature thinking that that was the best way to master the language. I think I succeeded in this regard, but after four years in this country and almost at the end of my studies, I felt a little lost as to what to do with a degree in English. I still felt that it was not good enough to work as an editor, which was the job that my professors mentioned.

“By accident,” I chose to take a TESL class as an elective. It opened my eyes. In that class, my professor told me that I was such a good learner of English that she was sure I could make a good teacher of ESL. The seed was planted that day. I decided I was going to become an educator so other ESL students could see that it was possible to learn ESL. I had the option to stay at UCLA as a graduate student, but at that time, I wanted to learn how to teach and focus on the practical side of TESOL, so I went to California State University, Los Angeles and finished my master’s in TESOL in one year.

My biggest obstacle was my own insecurity, which came in the form of a graduate school classmate’s voice. One day when I proudly said that I wanted to have a full-time teaching job, a classmate asked me, “Why would anyone hire you when they could hire me?”  I wanted to prove to this classmate that I knew there were some disadvantages in being a non-native speaker, but there were also many advantages.  After working at a language school for a year, friends suggested that I apply for a part-time position at Pasadena City College andGlendale Community College.  I buried my insecurities and tried to convince myself that I had something a native speaker could never have: the experience of learning ESL just like my students. After one semester working part-time, I applied for a full-time position and was hired.  I chose to teach at a community college because I wanted my students to be encouraged by a positive example. I know what my students feel because I was in their shoes. I also know that they can succeed even when they say they are “too old” to learn English.

2. You mentioned that you chose to teach at a community college because you wanted to encourage students by being a positive example and by letting them know that you have been in their shoes. Can you elaborate on why you feel reaching students at the community college level is important to you and the profession and why you can identify with students in this context?

As students in TESOL and Applied Linguistics, we learn about the “Critical Period Hypothesis” in graduate school. We hear about how we lose “plasticity” in the brain after puberty. This theory explains why adults have more difficulties learning a second language and even explains “fossilization” in language. But I believe that most, if not all immigrants, are unaware of this theory, and yet they come into the classroom already feeling defeated.  When they come to a community college, they are searching to better their lives, and they are motivated. However, at the same time, it is as if they are telling themselves that they know the language and age barrier are too strong for them to succeed. The main reason I wanted to focus on community college students is to not just tell them they can succeed but show them how it is possible. I was there; I was them. Like my students today, I was an adult in a community college trying to learn English. What I experienced and did, which ultimately led to my success, is much the same what the students are experiencing, and I hope that they, too, feel successful.

At the same time, I think that due to globalization, many professionals today are like me. There are many non-native speakers of English who are teaching or plan to become teachers, especially in California. Many of these professionals may have the same insecurities or even face discrimination. Perhaps when they read success stories, they too can feel empowered and focus on the positive aspects of teaching English as a non-native speaker. I want my students and the non-native professionals to be able to understand that their tasks, namely the task of learning ESL as adults and the task of teaching ESL as non-native speakers are very difficult tasks, but they can overcome the difficulties.

3. In the NNEST Newsletter of March 1999, you made a very timely analogy between what has been referred by many as the NNEST ‘movement’ and a human ‘wave’ at a sporting event. One of your arguments in this piece is that NNESTs must join forces to make this ‘wave’ more and more powerful and significant in the field.  For example, you described the creation of the NNEST Caucus within TESOL (now an Interest Section) as “the wave (…) on its way”. Now, 13 years later, how would you characterize this ‘wave’ or ‘movement’ today? Additionally, to what extent do you feel you have personally helped to make or strengthen this wave? How so?

Organizing and starting a wave at any sporting event are the hardest parts, for they require the participation of many and the synchronization of minds. However, unlike waves at sporting events, an intellectual wave does not have all bodies in one place looking at one coordinator. On the contrary, an intellectual wave consists of minds that think alike but may not be at the same stage of thought. It’s harder then to coordinate this wave because all minds must agree on a starting point and what direction to follow without having a coordinator to look at. When I wrote that article, the number of non-native speakers in TESOL programs was on the rise.  With that, schools were seeing an increase in the number of teaching applicants who did not speak English as their native language. There were problems on both sides. On one side there were non-native TESOL professionals who felt insecure about their skills, were discriminated against despite their qualifications, and felt powerless to deal with these issues. On the other side there were employers who did not see the value of the non-native professionals, quickly misjudged and dismissed well-qualified candidates due to a non-standard accent, or just were not sure if someone who did not speak English as a native language could teach it. We needed to start a “wave” to educate both sides. Dr. Lia Kamhi-Stein was instrumental in this part. With her as the co-founder and first coordinator of the NNEST Interest Group in CATESOL, we started gathering the minds in one place. Without her organization and coordination, the “wave” would have never started. Today the “wave” is strong. I helped with the beginning of the wave, but it is still going because more people have joined and because now we have more leaders to coordinate each section and make sure we all raise our arms and keep it going.

4. You have played a very active role in the professional CATESOL organization as the NNEST Interest Group coordinator. How and why did you get involved in this particular organization and what have you learned through this experience?

Well, this organization was the beginning of the “wave.” Dr. Kamhi-Stein served as my mentor and role model, and when she got me involved in CATESOL and TESOL, I started to see many facets of the profession. I attended conferences, I presented at conferences, but I did not know much about the inner workings ofCATESOL. Once I joined the board, I learned leadership skills and the importance of being a leader in the field. There were many reasons to join this organization, but the most important ones were to increase the visibility of non-native speakers in the field and give them a place to call “home,” where they can find others in the same situation. The experience greatly increased my self-confidence and drive to succeed.

5. How did you prepare yourself for this type of leadership position? What advice could you offer emerging NNESTs who seek to become more integrated in the NNEST community and assume a leadership role in it and/or in TESOL as a whole?

At the beginning of my graduate studies, I thought that professional organizations were only for “professionals,” people who were already working in the field, not students learning about the field. Again, with guidance from Dr. Kamhi-Stein, I learned that belonging to a professional organization could enhance my learning process. In fact, when one becomes a member of TESOL or CATESOL, one has a chance to not only learn from the experts but also join the caucuses or interest groups and be a part of what is happening in a specific area of the field. To explore the “wave” idea, I would say that one can be a spectator and watch a wave during a game. Joining a professional organization would be like being at the game itself. It is only by being at the game that one can have a chance to be part of, to experience, and to feel the wave. There is a lot to be learned that does not fit in a book. Leadership is one of the greatest lessons I received from CATESOL.  It is a wonderful organization because it makes you feel as part of a team. The members of the board make sure that new people coming in know that they are not alone. I don’t think I prepared myself for the position as much as they prepared me for it, but before I joined the board I followed little steps. I volunteered at conferences, read proposals for presentations, went to interest group and level meetings, helped organize conferences, presented, and tried to learn as much as I could about every position in the organization. Anyone who wishes to be part of the organization in a leadership position can start by doing the same things. At the very beginning, one can attend regional and state conferences and start networking. The members of the board are always present, and approaching a member in person is always a good start.

6. You have participated in various CATESOL development conferences through which lesson plans and workshops for fellow educators are offered. What would you describe as your greatest accomplishment and/or most memorable moment as an NNEST leader during these events?

There have been several memorable moments, but I think one of the most memorable ones happened many years ago at the statewide CATESOL in Pasadena, when we had the first meeting of the newly formed NNEST Interest Group. I remember feeling very anxious that not many people would show up, but when I saw that the room was packed, with standing room only, I realized I was part of something important. Everyone in that room felt relief to see that we were not alone. The audience listened to Dr. Kamhi-Stein.  I talked about my experience and saw heads nodding in agreement. I met wonderful people that day, people who went on to become leaders, people who today serve as role models.

7. In your TESOL Matters piece (Kamhi-Stein, Lee, & Lee, 1999), titled How TESOL Programs Can Enhance The Preparation Of Non Native English Speakers, you discuss the importance of role models for teachers in preparation. Can you discuss the impact that role models have had on your own career and professional development? Additionally, do you perceive yourself as a role model for teachers in training?

My mentor and role model Dr. Kamhi-Stein has been very important. When I saw that a non-native speaker could be a professor in a graduate program, I felt empowered. It was at that point that I started thinking that I could become a good teacher in spite of my non-nativeness. It was when I started working even harder towards my goal of succeeding as a language learner and teacher and becoming a leader in the field. I don’t know if I can be considered a role model for teachers in training, but I hope that I can serve as inspiration not to give up. I want them to see that they can be excellent professionals even though English is not their first language. I want them to tell themselves that they can find a job even when they are competing with native-speakers.

8. You conducted a research study (Lee & Lew, 2001) on the voices of nonnative English speakers in a Masters of Arts Program through diary studies. How did the context of your study and the participants you worked with relate to your own experiences as a then Master’s student in the United States? Did you ever make use of a diary in a similar way as your study?

As I read the participants’ diaries I could see the parallels between what they wrote and what I had felt as a student. I could see the constant struggle with self-doubt and the tough reality of being an English language learner trying to become a teacher. The only difference was that at the time the participants were in their graduate programs writing about their experiences, the NNEST Interest Group had already been created and changes were already happening in the field. There were other studies and articles published, and the professional environment was more positive towards non-native speakers than when I was in a graduate program. The diaries served an important purpose, however, because the participants were encouraged to externalize their feelings and see that they were not alone. With externalization comes awareness of problems and possible solutions. More importantly, when one writes about possible shortcomings, there is also that self-defense mechanism that kicks in and makes one look at the positive side. That is, from the participants’ diaries I could see how the first entries reflected a stronger self-doubt in their abilities, especially when they compared themselves with classmates who were native speakers or when they had discussions in which the native speakers referred to cultural background the non-native speakers did not have. In later entries, though, the participants became more self-confident. It was the same as my experience as a Master’s student. When I started teaching, I also kept a diary which also showed the same self-doubt at the beginning and a gradual increase in self confidence, which came from not only experience in the field but also from connecting with other non-native professionals.

9. How many years have you worked as an NNEST at Glendale Community College? As an experienced NNEST teacher and now long time resident of the United States, how do you position yourself vis-à-vis others (both in TESOL and otherwise) who are unaware of both the challenges and the opportunities encountered by NNESTs?

I have been working at Glendale Community College since 1998. I have learned a lot and continue to learn about the language, the culture, and the profession. As with everything, nothing is perfect and there are many obstacles, but that’s what is called EXPERIENCE. I can say now that I am an experienced language learner and teacher. The experience I have gained makes me much more self-confident as a teacher. While at the beginning of my teaching I was afraid to reveal to students that I was not a native speaker, now it is one of the things the students hear from me on the first day of classes. In addition, although I still feel somewhat at a disadvantage when I talk to native speakers, my involvement in professional organizations made me realize that I can overcome this feeling by focusing on what I have to contribute to the field. That is, I believe that all professionals in the field can benefit from educating themselves about the challenges and accomplishments of NNESTs. To the NNESTs, the benefits are obvious: if they learn about the challenges, they can make plans to deal with the challenges and learning about the opportunities can direct them towards the right path in the profession. What about the others? They can learn that being a native speaker of a language does not automatically make a person a good teacher of that language. I know that although I am a native speaker of Portuguese, I would not be the best Portuguese teacher because I am not trained for that and have no experience in that area. In the same manner, just because a person was not brought up speaking English does not mean that he or she cannot become a great teacher of ESL.

10. As an experienced ESL Teacher, to what extent do you feel that your formal education (BA and MA) prepared you, as an NNEST, to confront and help dispel the native speaker myth? What advice would you give to teacher preparation programs regarding this issue?

Both my BA and MA greatly prepared me to confront and dispel the native speaker myth. With my degree in English Literature from UCLA, I feel prepared to talk about some aspects of the language that not even all native speakers can understand. I learned the history of the language from its birth and developed vocabulary and cultural background by reading. With my MA, I felt prepared to pass the knowledge I attained to my students using effective methods.

One of the things I wish teacher preparation programs would do is to use the nonnative speakers in their program in a way that would benefit all of the teachers in preparation. It would be great for a teacher to find out what worked and what didn’t BEFORE a lesson. Nonnative speakers could share their English learning experience from their cultural point of view so all teachers to-be could learn about cultural awareness when preparing a lesson. All parties could benefit from learning about the pitfalls of teaching different language groups. Non-native speakers would learn to see their experience as an asset instead of an impediment  and native speakers would have the chance to draw from the non-native speakers’ experience and improve their teaching methods.


Kamhi-Stein, L., Lee, E., & Lee, C. (1999). How TESOL programs can enhance the preparation of nonnative English speakers. TESOL Matters, 9(4). Online at: http://tesol.org/s_tesol/sec_document.asp?CID=196&DID=813

Lee, E. (1999). Wanted: A wave of role models. NNEST Newsletter, 1(1), p. 11. Online at: http://nnest.moussu.net/news/news1.pdf

Lee, E., & Lew, L. (2001). Diary studies: The voices of nonnative English speakers in a master of arts program in teaching English to speakers of other languages. The CATESOL Journal, 13(1), p. 135-150. 

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About Ana Solano

Ana is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. Ana holds degrees in Applied Linguistics, TEFL, and TESOL and taught EFL/ESL for many years. She is interested in qualitative, interdisciplinary, and comparative perspectives to the education of bilingual/multilingual immigrant and refugee children in top migrant destination countries.

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